How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains the motives behind the hermit kingdom's threats.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits a military unit on an island in the most southwest of Pyongyang in August of 2012. (Reuters)

North Korea has been unusually blustery of late, threatening its southern neighbor with destruction, closing the jointly administered Keasong industrial complex , and flirting with what would be its fourth nuclear test since 2006. And while they probably lack the capability or even the intention of nuking the United States , the Kim regime's mere possession of weapons of mass destruction is reason enough for pause. Perhaps more worrying than the current crisis is the mere fact of North Korea's present capabilities: one of the world's most oppressive and belligerent governments managed to obtain some of the most destructive weaponry on earth, despite concerted international diplomacy, a restrictive sanctions regime, and decades of diplomatic and economic isolation. They're even planning on re-opening a plutonium complex that was closed under a 2007 agreement.

The world is rightly focused on the ever-increasing temperature along the DMZ, but it turns out that the Kim regime's decades-long path to the bomb holds some lessons of its own. I recently spoke with Mark Hibbs, a Bonn-based senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , and one of the world's foremost non-governmental experts on nuclear weapons procurement and development. As recounted in a 2006 Atlantic piece, Hibbs, a former journalist with an intense specialization in the minutia of the global trade in nuclear technologies, helped expose the existence of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's global procurement and proliferation network, a feat that led William Langewiesche to write that he "must rank as one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today." In the early 1990s, Hibbs' work also helped prove that Saddam Hussein was perhaps only three years away from a nuclear weapon at the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

Nuclear technology is no longer state of the art, not even for a country as isolated as North Korea --for this reason, Hibbs believes that nuclear proliferation has to be countered through addressing the complex political factors underlying it.

We touched on a broad range of topics related to the possible spread of nuclear arms. In part one, we discuss North Korea's uranium enrichment program, whether the A.Q. Khan network is still in existence, and why export controls alone can't prevent a determined country from obtaining nuclear technology.

Can North Korea increase its nuclear capacities to the point where the types of confrontations that we're seeing now become even more fraught?

There are two different ways of making nuclear weapons. One is uranium, and one is the implosion route, which is normally associated with plutonium.

The plutonium route -- implosion technology -- may be more difficult to produce. But North Korea has been at this for a while, and regardless of which of the two technologies may be favored or which has certain advantages, the bottom line is that for whatever reason the North Korean regime is doing this -- whether it's because there's an internal power struggle, or they're trying to get the U.S. and South Korean "sunshine" diplomats to pay them off, or whether they're trying to test the new South Korean government -- who knows. We don't really know the reason. But right now, the North Koreans are pulling out all the stops they can to escalate the situation. And they're trying to project as many threats as possible....

We know that there's an inventory of plutonium in the country. We don't exactly know how much there is, but we assume there's enough for a number of explosive devices. The assumption has been that as of 2010 at the latest, they were getting into uranium enrichment, and that they would be making bombs with uranium...

Now what we're hearing [with the announced re-opening of the Yongbyon facility] is that plutonium is back on the agenda. They're pulling that lever, but the bottom line is that we know that they've got two options and that they're trying to do both of them. That's not by any means a surprise. There's an indication that they're expressing, at least at scientific levels, some interest in thermonuclear technology.

North Korea, which has had a nuclear program for many years, is not at the beginning of this process. They have been at it for a long period of time. Contrary to the views that some people are recently expressing, this is not a race to the bomb. This is a country that has been in the business of doing nuclear research for almost half a century.

Hibbs says that ultimately, the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime "will rely on political good will between the countries that don't have nuclear weapons and the countries that do have them."

The politics of this are more important than the technology, because eventually North Korea is going to have all of the eggs in its basket, and it's just going to be a matter of whether their leadership decides it wants to deploy these assets or not. Fundamentally, the politics are trumping the technology.

How much do we know about North Korea's uranium enrichment capabilities? In what ways does it differ from plutonium bomb production?

The plutonium route requires a country to operate reactors, and it requires them to have another facility, a reprocessing plant to take the spent fuel that they remove from the reactors, dissolve that material, and separate the plutonium from the spent fuel. It's a messy process -- there are lots of intelligence signatures. Satellites are going to find the reprocessing plant. They've done that in North Korea. We know where the reprocessing plant is located. They have one reactor that was operating for several years and it was basically suspended in 2007. They've got a couple of other reactors they've been constructing. We know where they are.

If the North Koreans really are paranoid about being attacked, if they're really concerned about the survivability of their nuclear weapons infrastructure, then they're going to have be interested at some point in uranium enrichment because it's technology that they can hide [in underground facilities]...

At some point, the North Koreans are going to have to think about how to make their threat credible over the longest possible period of time. And that brings them to thinking about uranium enrichment. They have the technology -- we know that they obtained design know-how from Pakistan. We know that through a very considerable procurement network that they've operated for an enrichment program at least since the early 90s, that they have acquired an inventory of equipment and materials that they need to build these machines -- and that they're basically in the position of being able to replicate these centrifuges and minting them, if you will, like coins. [NOTE: In a part of this interview excised from the published version, Hibbs said that it's currently unknown whether the bomb North Korea detonated last February was of uranium or plutonium design].

North Korea is an incredibly poor and isolated country in almost every respect. How is it that a country like that is in a position where there are no barriers to it developing thermonuclear weapons, or a production line where there are few limits on the number of warheads it can obtain?

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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